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Howl’s Moving Castle: the differences between book and film

The drawing in the cover of the book was inspired by the film’s version of the castle, not the novel’s

This summer, I decided to read a fantasy saga: the Moving Castle one, by Diana Wynne Jones. I’d been attracted to it since I learnt that Hayao Miyazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle (which I absolutely adore) is based on a novel. So I discovered that, while the animated film is “only” one, the books are actually three: Howl’s Moving Castle (1986), Castle in the Air (1990) and House of Many Ways (2008). Miyazaki based his work on the first book, but there are a lot of differences. In this article I will focus on the major changes between film and novel and I will tell you what I liked about the story. In my next article I will focus on the other two novels. Very important: if you don’t want any spoilers, stop reading!  

The first important difference that we can notice is the theme of war: one of the major topics of the film, it is almost absent in the book. The author only put it in the background: we learn that the king wants Howl to find his brother because his skills would be useful in the upcoming war, but it is only a passing element. On the other hand, Miyazaki decided to focus the biggest part of his version on the war between the reign of Ingary and an unknown country.

This leads us to the second difference: whereas in the film Howl goes out a lot to fight, disguised as a huge bird, in the book he never does such a thing. A change in his shape is never mentioned and, most of all, the novel-version of Howl would never do it: all he does is going out, courting different girls each time. He admits with no hesitation he is a coward.

So, the book’s Howl is a womaniser. In both versions, it is said that wizard Howl is dangerous, as he’s used to eating pretty girls’ hearts. However, we soon forgot about it as we watch the film, for Howl never courts anyone. In the novel, things go quite differently: he’s always out for winning women’s favours, thing that Sophie doesn’t like from the start. She even believes that the young wizard actually eats human hearts and looks for the rest of them in the castle. She’s quite relieved when she finds out he only started that gossip to make people scared of him.

Another big change is constituted by Sophie’s magical powers: totally absent in the film, they play a fundamental role in the novel. The funny thing is that she uses them without even being aware she possesses them. She can talk life into objects. She begins using her powers at the beginning, when she’s alone in her hat shop. She sews different types of hats and she imagines the effect they will have when people wear them; this trick will make the marriage between a common woman and a noble man possible. When she goes living in Howl’s castle, she sews a suit for him. While she does it, she keeps complaining about the wizard’s bad habit of womanising all day long; she believes he will conquer many hearts wearing the suit. Eventually, this is what happens: Howl seems to possess an irresistible charm with that outfit. When she finally gains knowledge of her power and what she’s done, she desperately tries to ruin the suit.

Next big difference is Howl and Sophie’s relationship. Watching the film, we discover that they were meant to be: when we see Sophie visiting the wizard in his past (that’s the moment when she finds out about his pact with Calcifer, the fire demon), we learn he’s been waiting for her to reappear. In the novel, Sophie doesn’t travel back in time, so Howl isn’t waiting for her. The reader understands that the girl feels something for him (her jealousy proves everything) during the course of the story, but it’s only at the end of it that Howl demonstrates he returns her feelings.  

The role of the Witch of the Waste constitutes another element that is quite different in the two versions. In the book she’s the main antagonist of the story: the fire demon who controls her heart has gained power and circulates undisturbed, disguised as the beautiful “Miss Angorian”. Ultimately, both the Witch and the demon are killed. In the film, she starts out as an evil character (she’s the one who curses Sophie, like in the novel) but, eventually, Madame Suliman (the sorceress who serves the king) reduces her to be an old, harmless woman. Sophie starts feeling pity for her and convinces Howl to take her to live in the castle with them. In the end, she doesn’t die but stays to live with the couple and shares a happy ending with them.

Finally, one big change is the shape of Howl’s moving castle itself. Jones describes it as a dark tower that scares the population; Miyazaki decided to parody cars and technology in general with a machine that works thanks to both steam and magic. The first one imagined it as a flying house; the second one moves thanks to some sort of mechanical legs. The film version of the castle has influenced our imagination so much that even some covers of the novel present it, despite the fact that they should have the book’s version depicted instead (just like my cover that you can see above).

As I stated at the beginning of the article, I’m in love with Howl’s Moving Castle. I discovered the story thanks to Miyazaki’s film when I was a girl and I immediately fell in love with it (even if this is what happens to me with most of Miyazaki’s filmography, to be honest). I loved the drawings, the story, the characters…everything. Some time later I learnt that it was based on a novel, so I had to read it.

As I showed with this article, the film and the book display different versions of the story; I firmly believe they are both valuable, but now I’m going to focus on the novel and describe which elements made me fall in love with it.  

One of the things I enjoyed about the story is that it is a fantasy one, but with realistic elements: all the characters live their everyday lives and treat magic as something common. Even if they live in a magical world, it doesn’t mean they only have to deal with fantastic adventures: at the beginning of the book, for example, Sophie’s father has just died and her stepmother has to figure out what to do: all her three stepdaughters need to start working in order to make money, otherwise they won’t have anything to rely on. Being the eldest, Sophie is forced to work in her family’s hat shop.  

I also liked the fact that Jones invented a fantasy realm, Ingary, but connected it to our world: Howl originally comes from Wales, a country that isn’t known very well by Ingary people. That shows a mixture of fantastic and realistic that constitutes a new thing to me.

I believe Sophie is an amazing main character: at the beginning, she is young and shy. She believes she isn’t pretty and thinks her life will always be the same: dull and hollow, spent in that hat shop she has inherited but that doesn’t correspond to what she really wants. When the Witch of the Waste curses her, she becomes and old lady; this transformation will lead her to fully expose her character: she’s now quite a decisive person, she isn’t afraid of speaking her own mind and she faces all the consequences of her words and actions. Quite a good example, isn’t she? Not only that, I think the author showed a very original idea deciding to make an elder woman the main character. An unusual choice that resulted in an original story.

Howl isn’t the usual main character, either: at first reading he seems the classic young man who goes around seducing all girls and women and then meets the perfect girl and settles down. He’s not like that or, at least, he’s not only that. We can call him a sort of “anti-hero”, in a sense. Unlike most heroes, he is a coward; not only he is one, but he isn’t ashamed of admitting it to Sophie. What he does for most of the book is running away from his responsibilities. Moreover, he’s quite vain: it’s unusual to see a male character so fond of dying his hair! When Sophie cleans his bathroom and mixes all his lotions up, he ends up with a reddish hair colour he doesn’t like: this leads to a sort of existential crisis for him that we see both in the novel and the film. So, what Howl does for most of the story is deciding which suit to wear in order to win some girl’s heart, changing his hair colour and flee his duties. Then, why do we love him so much? My answer is that we do exactly because he’s not a standard hero: he’s different from the others and, yet, he’s still a hero. He’s arrogant, but tries to free Sophie from her curse during the entire story (even if we only learn it at the end of the novel); he’s a coward but, eventually, he risks everything to save his loved one.

In conclusion, these are the major elements that made me appreciate the novel; if you haven’t read it yet, I strongly suggest you do it. If you loved Miyazaki’s film, you will certainly adore the novel too.

Let me know with a comment if you enjoyed my article and if you’re familiar with Diana Wynne Jones’ book.

In my next article, I will focus on the two other novels in the Moving Castle trilogy, Castle in the Air and House of Many Ways. Stay connected!  


3 thoughts on “Howl’s Moving Castle: the differences between book and film

  1. Hi, Caterina. I enjoyed your thoughts on this. I’ve seen the animated film, but had not read the book. Now I want to read it. I also enjoyed your About page. Hugs on the wing.


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